POGO Joins Bi-Partisan Group of Senators in Demanding Obama Oust the SIGAR
Four Senators wrote President Barack Obama this morning urging him to remove Arnold Fields as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). U.S. taxpayers have provided at least $51 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction since 2002, according to the SIGAR, a dollar figure that is expected to increase to $71 billion by next year. Under Fields’ two year tenure, the SIGAR office has largely been considered a disappointment, and numerous deficiencies in its operations and audit reports have been identified. POGO supports the call to replace Fields.
The Senators calling for Fields’ removal are Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Both Coburn and McCaskill have previously called for Fields’ termination.
“POGO commends these Senators for taking seriously their oversight of the Inspectors General,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director. “Removing an IG is a serious action that should not be taken lightly; however, this case warrants it. The importance of effective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction funds is paramount, and few stakeholders have confidence in Arnold Fields.”
The recent discovery that SIGAR picked Joseph E. Schmitz, PLLC, for a sole-source contract to independently monitor the SIGAR’s efforts to alleviate deficiencies in its investigative division appears to have been the catalyst for the Senators’ letter.
Schmitz, the former Defense Department Inspector General, left the Pentagon amid allegations that he interfered with investigations and other misconduct. A council of IGs, which investigated allegations against Schmitz, found he had not violated "any law, rule, or regulation," or engaged in "gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, or abuse of authority in connection with any of the matters under review."
After leaving the Pentagon, Schmitz went to work for The Prince Group, the holding company for Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. Also affiliated with the Schmitz group is Howard “Cookie” Krongard, former State Deptartment IG who also left office amid congressional concern that he was blocking sensitive investigations, including one into the company formerly known as Blackwater.
According to the justification and approval document for the no-bid contract, a search for a monitor was conducted by “members of the SIGAR management staff by making telephone contacts with knowledgeable federal and non-federal experts….It was through this process that SIGAR determined the availability of Joseph E. Schmitz.”
The deficiencies in SIGAR’s investigative wing were outlined in a Council for Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency report in July. SIGAR’s law enforcement powers could be stripped from it if the problems are not fixed, which, according to SIGAR, “would effectively terminate the agency and all of the ongoing criminal investigations concerning Afghanistan Reconstruction funding,” according to the sole-source justification document.
When Fields became the first SIGAR in the summer of 2008, he was tasked with setting up a watchdog office under challenging circumstances in a war zone where there had been a paucity of oversight for over six years. Over the next two years, many have criticized his leadership of his office.
One criticism levied against the SIGAR by the four Senators was its failure to have a meaningful strategic plan for auditing and investigations. An IG’s strategic plan is a critical tool used to decide what issues should be given priority and is especially important when there are numerous issues competing for the attention of relatively few auditors and investigators. Observers have pointed out that some SIGAR audits have duplicated what is already known.
For example, a January 2010 audit by the SIGAR on U.S. assistance for the construction of a power plant in Kabul “updates and builds upon the audit report issued by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in November 2009,” according to the SIGAR audit. The USAID IG audit was issued only two months earlier.
In another example, an August 2010 SIGAR report on “U.S. Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan Would Benefit from a Finalized Comprehensive U.S. Anti-Corruption Strategy,” which took eleven months to finish, reads like a summary of news reports and previous assessments. “It shouldn’t take eleven months to compile information mostly contained in news reports,” said POGO Investigator Jake Wiens.
While these are not characteristic of all of SIGAR’s audits, they are two out of the eleven audit reports SIGAR has produced in 2010. Last year, most of its earliest audits were severely criticized in a memo written by Hill staffers and obtained by Foreign Policy’s blog, “The Cable.” As POGO has written in a report on IGs, reaction is one of the best means of measuring an IG’s impact. Congress has often unfavorably compared the SIGAR to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction on this basis.
“Fields’ office has produced milk-toast audits that have not inspired congressional confidence in him,” said Wiens. “Congress is arguably his most important constituency, and given the importance of oversight in Afghanistan, the stakes are just too high for his office to spend so much time producing mediocre reports.”
Correction: POGO has removed several sentences regarding Joseph Schmitz, which are under review.
Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.